Still Too Many Secrets

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Monday, June 1, 2009

ON WEDNESDAY, President Obama announced the formation of a task force to review government policies that keep certain information out of public reach. He proposed the creation of a National Declassification Center to facilitate, when appropriate, public disclosure of once-secret information. In a memo outlining the task force's objectives, the president reaffirmed his commitment "to operating with an unprecedented level of openness." As The Post's Carrie Johnson reported, Mr. Obama also raised the possibility of reviving the "presumption against classification" that would preclude stamping information as secret when there is "significant doubt" about whether that is necessary. The task force, led by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, has 90 days to submit recommendations to the White House. So far, so good.

Yet, at the same time, the administration is supporting legislation that could increase secrecy. The Justice Department filed notice Thursday of its intention to challenge in the Supreme Court a New York federal appeals court ruling that ordered the administration to make public photographs allegedly depicting the abuse of terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. The American Civil Liberties Union had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suit to force their disclosure. (The Washington Post Co. filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the ACLU.) At the same time, the Justice Department alerted the court that a formal appeal by the June 9 deadline may be unnecessary if Congress quickly passes the Detainee Photographic Records Protection Act of 2009. The department also asked Friday that the deadline be extended to July 9.

The measure, supported by the White House and passed May 21 as an attachment to a Senate funding bill, would put beyond the reach of FOIA any photographs taken between Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 22, 2009, "relating to the treatment of individuals engaged, captured, or detained after September 11, 2001, by the Armed Forces of the United States in operations outside of the United States" that the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have determined would endanger military personnel if released.

The Obama administration deserves credit for reviewing government policies that for eight years have been applied too expansively to keep important information from public view. Earlier this year, for example, Mr. Holder rescinded Bush-era FOIA guidelines and replaced them with new rules that better reflect and preserve FOIA's purpose of making public important information about the workings of the government -- which is what makes the administration's support for the photographic records act so regrettable. In taking a step aimed at protecting the country's service members, Mr. Obama runs the risk of taking two steps back in his quest for more open government.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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